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Tests Dispel Idea That Intellectual Ability Declines With Age

February 04, 1988|ANNE A. ROSENFELD

As people get older they supposedly get wiser, yet on many tests of intellectual ability, people seem to do worse with age. Are the common-sense notions wrong, or are the tests missing some important assets of older minds?

Conventional tests shortchange older people's abilities, according to psychologists Stephen W. Cornelius and Avshalom Caspi, who came up with a new way to test various aspects of intelligence.

Cornelius and Caspi developed the Everyday Problem-Solving Inventory (EPSI), an intelligence test that explores abilities that people often associate with being smart. These include practical intelligence (such as sizing up situations well, determining how to achieve goals and being interested in the world at large) and social competence (accepting others for what they are, admitting mistakes, showing up on time for appointments).

(Cornelius, a Ph.D., is at Cornell University. Caspi, also a Ph.D., is at Harvard University. Their study appeared in the Psychology and Aging journal, for which the writer of this article works.)

Working with 126 adults aged 20 to 78, the researchers gave them the EPSI and several other tests of verbal and problem-solving abilities. Results on their test and the more conventional ones were significantly (although modestly) correlated, suggesting that "each test seems to capture different aspects of intellectual behavior and functioning." These differences showed up in contrasting patterns of performance. On the traditional problem-solving test, for example, performance declined in people past middle age. But on the EPSI, and on a test of verbal ability, people got better with age.

Cornelius and Caspi are not yet certain why older people did so well on the EPSI, but they doubt that the answer lies simply in older people's greater experience in solving problems of all sorts. Whatever the reason, they believe that their research supports a "pluralistic conception of intelligence."

Some facets grow cloudy over time, but others shine brighter than ever. That's a comfort when one senses, as Sir Walter Scott put it, that "I am perhaps setting."

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